Early talk and stories

Children's developing communicative competence and its relation to their growing social-cognitive understanding

For over 25 years, research in the lab has been exploring young children's developing communicative competence (their use of language, or the pragmatics of language as it is sometimes referred to more formally). We are especially interested in the communicative competence of 1- to 4-year-old children in very everyday settings such as talk between parents and children during everyday activities at home, telling and iistening to picture-book stories, peer conversation, and talk while playing. We also focus on exploring how children's communicative competence is impacted by their growing abilities to understand their own and other people's differing viewpoints with respect to what they may know, think, like, feel - in effect, their growing understanding of their own and other's mental states and perspectives. This is the intersection between children's growing communicative and social cognitive understanding.

You can see some of this research highlighted in articles in the media in Media mentions!

As an example of a pragmatic language ability in which perspective-taking plays a role, consider that whenever we communicate with others we make adjustments to reflect what we think our listeners know or don't know. If we did not do so, our communicative attempts would not be very successful.

In one of Daniela O'Neill's earliest studies as a graduate student, she looked at how children as young as two years of age are already adapting their communication (their words and gestures) to take into account what their mother might know or not know. She found that 2-year-olds were more likely to tell their mother the location of a hidden object if she had left the room while it was hidden, than if she had stayed inside the room and had seen where it was hidden. In other words, 2-year-olds were taking into account whether their mom had seen the hiding of the toy or not, and adapting their communication accordingly! This is something researchers previously thought only much older children could do.

This type of perspective-taking that was observed in two-year-old children is actually part of an emerging understanding of the mind and mental states such as "knowing" or "thinking" that will continue to develop throughout the preschool years, and be reflected in what they talk about, as children come to better understand the origins of their own knowledge, to understand how changes in their own knowledge may occur (e.g., "I thought it was a cloud, but now I think it might be smoke."), to explain and predict the actions of others (e.g., "She thinks it's under the couch, so she's looking there."), and to think and talk about themselves and other people from different perspectives in time such as the past, present, and future.

A major product of the lab's research is the Language Use Inventory (LUI), a standardized parent-report tool to measure pragmatic language development in children 18 to 47 months of age. It is used in Canada and internationally by speech-language pathologists and child language researchers. The LUI provides a very much needed, empirically validated and normed questionnaire for speech-language pathologists, health professionals, clinicians and researchers to determine whether a child is delayed with respect to their use of language relative to their peers of the same age in months. (It is available commercially to professionals at LanguageUseInventory.com.)

Among children older than 4 years of age, our studies have explored the kinds of perspective-taking and abstraction involved in early storytelling and story comprehension, such as the construction of mental models of the narrative, and how such abilities may be related to other domains of thinking, such as mathematics, abstraction and reading comprehension.

Links or PDFs to the full published articles of all our research can be found in Publications.

Some examples of what we have learned about young children's storytelling, peer conversations, their ability to think about themselves in the future, and their use of gestures when learning words and in storytelling

Here are few short descriptions of some of the lab's past studies and their results. You can see more work around parent-child picture book reading and the Language Use Inventory in Media mentions and our Talk2Thrive outreach activities in Community outreach.

Young children can step into the shoes and minds of characters in stories

In these three 2007 , 2010, and 2017 studies, we looked at how very young children, long before they can read, are able to step into the shoes and minds of characters in stories. As adults, we do this so effortlessly, we really are hardly aware of it at all. Much research with adults has shown that, as we read or listen to a story, we build up what are called "situation models" or "mental models" in our mind of the setting, events and even psychological states of characters in stories. But almost nothing is known about whether children share this narrative ability, and if so, when does it emerge? Our studies showed that children share this ability from an early age - as early as 3 and 4 years old. These studies may help to shed new light on our understanding of processes involved in reading comprehension, which has received much less study than the acquisition of reading itself, yet can be an area of difficulty for children around Grade 4 when children shift from learning to read fluently to reading to learn. We also summarized this work in this 2015 open access article in Frontiers for Young Minds, a journal specifically for, and edited by, school children.

(Angela Nyhout, who is now at the University of Kent, is continuing this work in her lab.)

Preschoolers' storytelling abilities are linked to their later mathematical ability

This 2004 study, in which we found a predictive relation between 3- and 4-year-olds' abiity to take the perspective of characters in a story telling task, and their later mathematical ability two years later, has been reported on in many media articles, some of which have done a much better job than we could here of summarizing the study and hitting the highlights! Here are links to some of them that appear in Centre news!

Beginning a conversation with peers is hard for 4-year-olds!

In this 2009 study, we were interested in how, in a naturalistic setting - the snackroom of a preschool - 4-year-old children would attempt to begin conversations with each other. What topics would they try to initiate? Would these topics include only aspects of the physical setting (e.g., talk about toys, food) or would they also include topics about mental states (e.g., what they are thinking about, what they know, what they are seeing, hearing). We collected a large database of videotaped conversations (over 40 sessions of more than 45 minutes of snackroom talk) which we transcribed and then analyzed. We learned that beginning a conversation with peers is not easy for children! Along with a detailed qualitative analysis of the types of topics they tried to initiate, the paper provides lots of fun examples taken from the transcripts!

Preschoolers are beginning to be able to project themselves into the future

In 2001, Cristina Atance and I introduced the term "episodic future thinking" to capture our ability to project ourselves into the future and we were particularly interested in when children first develop the ability to really project themselves into the future and anticipate a future situation. This became a fascinating aspect of children's thinking to explore, and we had to come up with a lot of novel, different types of tasks. For example, in a 2005 study, we had children take part in a "pretend trip" task. Children were shown some items, such as juice, bandaids, sunglasses, and money and were asked to choose three things that they might need to bring them along on a trip. After choosing an item, the children were asked by Elmo the puppet why they were bringing the item on a trip. We found that although older 3-year-olds answered Elmo's questions with explanations like "I might get hurt (that's why I need bandaids), " this was not what younger 3-year-olds did. The younger children did not appear to be able to project themselves into the future in the same way. Their explanations were much more likely to be present-oriented rather than future-oriented. So, they might explain their choice to take bandaids by saying, "I like them." From results like this, we learned that children's ability to project themselves into the future and anticipate future situations is developing in the fourth year of life. We wrote a number of articles and summary pieces on this topic together in 2001, 2004 and 2005.

(Cristina Atance, who is now a Professor at the University of Ottawa, has continued this work in her Childhood Cognition and Learning lab.)

"Maybe my daddy give me a big piano" 2-year-olds are already beginning to use modals to express uncertainty and talk about the future

This 2000 study was conducted using an online database of child language transcripts available to researchers called Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES) developed and maintained by Brian MacWhinney of Carnegie Mellon University. We used the database to look at how 10 children between the age of 24 to 59 months began to use the words "maybe", "possibly", "probably", and "might" (modal terms as they are known to researchers). These may seem like unusual words to study, but they are very interesting words because we use them to talk about uncertainty and we were interested in learning more about how children begin to understand uncertainty. Uncertainty is a fact of life and a very important part of our understanding of the future as the future is always uncertain. And children's developing understanding of the future is something that we have been studying in the lab.

By looking at the transcripts in the CHILDES database, we were able to develop a way to "code" them and see whether these words were, for example, being used to talk about things in the present, in the past, in the future; about people or about physical objects, and so on. This allowed us to say something overall about the contexts in which children are using these words when they first start using them and as they get older.

We discovered that children first talked about uncertainty using "maybe" and "probably" in connection with ongoing events in the physical world and with respect to future intentions, usually of the self. Next, children were able to use these words to talk about uncertainty with respect to future situations. After about 42 months of age, children began to use "might" much more often, especially to talk about "things that might happen" in the future. So by 3 years of age, children are clearly already thinking and talking about things in the future and are showing the ability to talk about hypothetical situations that will become very important to the development of scientific thinking.

3-year-olds, but not 4-year-olds, use gestures to help clarify who they are talking about in their stories

In this 2002 study, we were interested in looking at preschool children's early storytelling ability and how they use their gestures and voices to help tell a story. Storytelling is a very important ability, for as the eminent psychologist Jerome Bruner has argued so well, stories are not just child's play but serve as our means of understanding the world we live in.

In this study, children were shown a picture book that told a story without any text. Children first looked through the story, and then they were asked to tell the story to Ernie the puppet who had never heard the story before. Children were excited to tell Ernie the story and did a great job. We videotaped children as they told the story. By videotaping the story, after children had taken part, we could write out their stories and also see what gestures they used and how they used their voice to mimic some of the characters in the story.

For a long time, we have known that young preschool children have difficulty, when telling a story, to clearly identify all the characters. For example, they usually over-use pronouns (he/she/it/them/they) when instead they should be more specific and use a more specific term like "the girl" or "Janet." And in our study, we found the same difficulty. 4-year-olds overused pronouns about 50% of the time, and 3-year-olds overused pronouns almost all the time - about 75% of the time. We could see this clearly when we wrote out children's stories.

But when we were also able to take into account, from the videotapes, children's gestures (e.g., their points to a specific character in the picture on a page) and their use of their "pretend" voices to act out what a character was saying, we realized that 3-year-olds were being much clearer than it looked at first. By using gestures to point to characters in the pictures and by adopting the "voices" of different characters (as children often do when pretend playing), 3-year-olds made it quite clear who they were meaning to talk about.

Indeed, when all the analyses were done, through using their gestures and voices, 3-year-olds were able, just like 4-year-olds, to clearly reference the characters in their stories about 50% of the time. Referencing story characters is clearly a difficult task for children, as 4-year-olds still have a way to go, given that 50% of the time their references are still unclear. Four-year-olds don't use gestures and voicing as much though (perhaps they think the gestures are "babyish"?).

Telling a story is a tremendous linguistic and cognitive achievement, and our studies are helping us to better understand how children progress as storytellers and what they they have to learn to do it. These studies are also making us aware of important ways in which children's stories are not yet like adult stories, and how much we should reasonably expect children to be able to do when telling stories. Having such benchmarks for children who are developing typically may be especially useful for professionals working with children with delays in their language and related skills such as storytelling.

Descriptive gestures (but not points!) help 2-year-olds learn new adjectives

Do gestures help children to learn the meaning of new word? This is the question we set out to answer in this 2002 study. The new words we used were adjectives. Adjectives are interesting words because their meaning can be quite difficult to figure out. For example, if I show you a teddy bear and say "This is a daxxy bear," what could I mean? This is the type of situation that young children learning language face all the time - they are hearing a new word and must try and figure out what the speaker is talking about. Does "daxxy" mean brown? fat? soft? hairy? heavy? or what?

In this study we looked at whether children as young as 2 years of age might pay attention to the gestures a speaker uses when talking about adjectives in order to figure out what they mean. Children were shown 5 toys and for each toy a new adjective term - "roughy," "spongy," "lumpy," "spiny" or "fleecy" was used to describe it.

The key thing was, that for one group of 20 children, we just pointed to the toy as we said "This is a spongy cow." But for another group of 20 children we used a more descriptive gesture such as squeezing the cow as we said "This is a spongy cow." Would the type of gesture make a difference to children this young? Would they learn the meaning of "spongy" better in one case?

The answer was clearly "YES!" Children given the more descriptive gesture, were better able later to choose another toy that was also "spongy" than the children only given a point gesture.

Interestingly, the children given only the point gesture were much more likely to ask whether the other similar toy they had chose possessed the relevant property: "Is this the spongy pig?" And, when they were first learning the meaning of spongy, they were much more likely to talk about other properties of the toy. It was as though they were saying to themselves: "What could spongy mean? Pink? Has a tail? Fat?" But the children given the more descriptive gesture did not do this. We believe this is because the more descriptive gesture allowed them to zoom in on the right property and they could just concentrate on learning the new word! So gestures do matter, even for children only 2 years old!

Two-year-olds are sensitive to when their own pointing gestures are not clear enough

This 2001 study helped us to learn more about how young 2-year-olds adapt their communication for listeners. In this study, we were interested in finding out whether 2-year-old children can recognize that in some situations a pointing gesture is not enough specify clearly an object that they want, and will choose to name the object verbally as well.

The 2-year-olds in this study were told that they would be playing a game in which they would find some hidden stickers. The stickers were hidden inside plastic toy animals that had an opening in the bottom in which a sticker could be placed. The children sat at a small table with the researcher to their right and their mother to their left. The researcher then hid a sticker in one of two toy animals. The 2-year-olds were able to watch which toy the sticker was hidden in, but their mother was asked to close her eyes during the hiding of the sticker.

The two toys were then placed in one of two ways at the far end of the table, out of reach of the children, as shown in the pictures below.

In Situation A, the toys were placed far apart on the table.

Toys placed far apart on a table

In Situation B, the toys were placed very close together.

Toys placed close together on a table

Once the toys had been placed at the far end of the table, the mothers were asked to open their eyes and the children could tell her which toy they wanted.

In Situation A, we thought that most children would simply point to the toy they wanted. And this is indeed what our 2-year-old children usually did.

But, we were really more interested in seeing what the children would do in Situation B. In this situation, if children just pointed to the toy, it was not possible for their mother to know which toy they wanted, because the toys were too small and too far away (we purposely designed it this way!). What children had to do to make clear to their mom which toy they wanted was to use their words and tell her "I want the dog" or "I want the pig." And this is exactly what the 2-year-olds did--and they only did this in Situation B and not Situation A.

So, this study helped us to learn more about how 2-year-olds really are much more sophisticated communicators than we might previously have thought. In this study, they recognized when their gestures could not specify what they wanted clearly enough and adapted their communication accordingly by naming the toy animal.

3-year-olds, but not 4-year-olds, have difficulty understanding the kinds of information we gain through our five senses

In this 2001 set of studies, we explored what 3- and 4-year-old children understand about how each of five senses can lead to different types of knowledge. For example, from seeing we can tell that something is blue, but we can't do that from feeling something.

In Study 1, the children engaged in 5 scenarios in which they could only perform 1 sensory action to identify the property of an object (e.g., color, smell). For example, they were able to smell a colourless liquid. After performing the action, children were asked what it's property was (e.g., strawberry smelling) and how they found out the property (e.g., by smelling) and to show the experimenter how they found it out (e.g., to sniff). Children were also asked, using a Mr. Potato Head doll, to pick the sensory organ (e.g., his nose) that the doll would need to use to find out the same property.

In Study 2, children were presented with 5 Mr. Potato Heads, each sporting only 1 sensory organ (e.g., Mr. Nose, Mr. Eyes, Mr. Ears, Mr. Hands, and Mr. Mouth) and asked which Mr. Potato Head could find out the property in question.

Overall, we found that 3-year-olds find these kinds of questions very, very hard! They can tell you that "eyes are for seeing" and "noses are for smelling," but if they have to consider carefully how they came to know that something was "strawberry smelling," it's much harder for them. Strikingly, by 4 years of age, children find these questions easy! So, we found out that between 3 and 4 years of age, children develop the understanding of what kinds of knowledge our different senses can provide us with.